Irish Examiner view: Different standards of free speech 

Elon Musk's takeover of Twitter has refocused debate on the limits of freedom of expression
Irish Examiner view: Different standards of free speech 

Social media is abuzz with the news about Tesla founder Elon Musk's takeover of Twitter, with much of the discourse focused on free speech. File picture: John Raoux/AP

One of the consequences of Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover is a refocused debate on what constitutes “free” speech, and what that means in different jurisdictions. In some countries, the US for example, it has constitutional protection. 

In Europe, it is referenced by the Convention on Human Rights, which includes “freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers”. In other nations, much press regulation derives from courts and case law of various kinds.

There are roughly 700,000 Irish Twitter users who send 1m-plus tweets every day. They can apparently look forward to a lighter touch on moderating posts. Whether this produces an even more toxic digital town we will know soon.

Defamation law

In Ireland, the law that preoccupies most editors, due to high penalties and attached costs, is defamation, a form of legal pressure on publishing that is long overdue reform.

RTÉ alone has paid out €10m in defamation costs over the past decade. It is disconcerting then that in this category of jurisprudence, Sinn Féin, currently Ireland’s highest ranking single party in opinion polls, is the most active, the latest example being High Court proceedings launched by leader Mary Lou McDonald against the State broadcaster. This concerns comments made during a radio discussion about the National Women’s Council of Ireland rally in February.

Sinn Féin representatives have been involved in several cases in the past few years, and the party refuses to comment on the current situation, but says: “Defamation laws exist to protect the rights of individuals in the face of false claims or accusations being made about them. Everyone has the right to defend their reputation.”

This, of course, is true. But most defamation actions are settled before trial due to the financial exposure they bring, and a belligerent approach can be a form of prior restraint. 

It would be unfortunate if this was so with a party hoping to mature its way into power. But perhaps it would be best if the electorate was told that.

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